Virtuous Relationships

I’m here tonight to talk to you about how to develop and maintain holy and virtuous relationships with your beloved. The formation process for the permanent diaconate involves a fair amount of intellectual learning, but I’m also going to share with you some of the insights I have gained just through normal – maybe a bit abnormal – life lessons. I am married. I did date. I did not always approach women the way I now understand I should. I did a lot because I am a sinner. I did some because I didn’t know any better. I hope I give you some knowledge and some tools tonight so you are not doomed to repeat my mistakes.

Ignorance is a big problem for us Catholics in the world today. If you were in your school years at any point after 1960, then you were put through an educational system that was very busy rejecting the accumulated wisdom of the previous 2,000 years. So many of those concepts that the modern society rejected had to do with the relationship between men and women. Part of why we have so much trouble in this area is that our toolbox is full of the wrong tools. It’s very hard to hang a picture on a wall if you don’t have a hook, a little hammer, and a level. How much harder it is to live the vocation to holy matrimony if you don’t know how men and women are made by their Creator. That’s what I want to talk to you about tonight.

I hope what I’m going to discuss is helpful to all couples. Holy Matrimony is a vocation, and it is a sacrament of service. Single people are supposed to discern if God is calling them to a life of service as a priest or religious, or if they are called to Holy Matrimony. God did not call us to a life of self-focus, but to give of ourselves to his glory. So, part of the vocation of Holy Matrimony is the activity before the wedding – which means discerning in a holy and virtuous way who God wants for us to share our lives – and the other part is after the wedding – which means how to live together in a holy and virtuous way.

The challenge for faithful Christians is that holiness and virtue are not something the modern world celebrates, so we are trying to do something that is profoundly counter-cultural. The world today thinks of human relationships as contractual. If you’ve ever read a contract, the first part of a contract is the exchange that is to be made, and the rest of the document deals with how the exchange will be broken or terminated. The modern definition of marriage is simply a legal arrangement between two people, and it’s beginning to include more than two people as bigamy and polyamory gain traction in our society. Modern marriages are not necessarily directed toward having and raising children, so marriage between two people of the same sex is no longer an oddity. Modern marriages are not necessarily permanent, so divorce is quite common. Modern marriages are often financial, so financial difficulty is a perfectly valid reason for ending the marriage. Modern marriages are often open to side arrangements, so what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.

In an uncertain world where promises are made to be broken, our modern social structures necessarily become environments where everyone has to be looking out for number one. This is perfectly logical, even if it is not an arrangement that leads to true happiness. You have to look out for yourself because you know that nobody else is looking out for you. You do what you feel you need to do to give yourself pleasure and protect yourself from pain.

Another aspect of this environment is that the definition of right and wrong is not fixed. Ethics – the rules for behavior – are subjective and depend upon the circumstances or the situation. This subjective morality is how people can honestly say that abortion is a women’s health issue, or that it is a loving thing to abort a child because I will probably not be a good father.

The subjective approach to ethics and morality works as long as we do not bump into one another and have to decide what to do when one person’s subjective morality says an act is bad while another person’s morality says it is not bad, or even that it is good. When an orthodox Catholic tries to reason with an advocate of homosexual marriage – the one party saying that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman  and the other party saying it is not – there is no external and objective authority to call on for an answer. So, the party with the most social power gets to impose its morality on the other party. In western civilization, the balance of social power has gone down for Christians and up for secular pagans. That’s why – after a Supreme Court decision a few years ago – homosexual marriage is the law of the land and nobody can take that civil right away from them.

But before that recent Supreme Court decision, our society was chipping away at the social institution of marriage that closely tracked the Christian understanding of Holy Matrimony. Many years ago, it was not uncommon for a married couple to have a husband who worked outside the home and a wife who stayed at home and raised the kids. Feminist activists recast this picture as an example of male exploitation, and women were told they better be able to earn enough so they were not dependent upon some man. Naturally, there was a counter-reaction, and men began to advocate for no-fault divorces. Their argument was that they should not be made to pay a lot of alimony if she wanted out of the marriage.

Since society had walked away from the path of Christian morality, we were making things up as we went. When you are doing everything improv, it’s fundamentally unstable even if sometimes it’s really, really good. But that instability is the world in which you are either considering how to find the right person for marriage, or considering how to treat your married spouse. If you feel uncomfortable and uncertain, I hope by now you at least know why.

This is where we are. But we were not made to be this way. The Christian view of the world and human relationships is based on Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. From Sacred Scripture, we know where truth is to be found, for Jesus declared himself to be that in the Gospel of John, chapter 14: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” [Jn 14:6]. In a world that tells us that we should follow our conscience, the Church adds, “and if your conscience doesn’t line up with Jesus, then reform your conscience.” He is the source of truth, for he is truth.

Jesus is also divine, one of the three persons of the eternal Trinity. Eternal means unchanging, unbound by time and circumstance, containing all things and therefore not contingent upon anything that was created. As we say in the Nicene Creed at Mass, “consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.” The truth that is of God is outside of creation. It is therefore not conditional or relative. And the morals that flow from that eternal truth are eternal. Inherently evil acts, such as abortion, are evil regardless of the circumstances of conception no matter how awful they are. This understanding of truth and morality is really tough to handle when we are in awful circumstances; of that there is no doubt. I do not intend to lessen the difficulty of following the truth and moral teaching of the faith, but at least it is solid ground. Our house of morality is like the house built on solid rock rather than built on sand. The foundations won’t slip underneath us.

This solid foundation is extremely important because our mandate is really big. And it is tough to do much of the time. We are to love each other. Love is our mandate. While the world is approaching human relations under the motto of “grab while the grabbing is good,” we approach human relations under the mandate, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” [Lk 10:27]

So, that’s the problem. The world understands the human person as a spirit or mind that is attached to a body that can be used however the mind or will directs it to be used. The only ethical issue the world faces is when one mind or will chooses to interfere with the mind or will of another person. But Christians understand humanity and the human person differently. Once we understand how to consider the human person, then we understand how a Christian should  use his body.

What I’m about to go through should be familiar to anyone who has previous experience with the teachings given to us by St. John Paul II under the title “Theology of the Body.” But for tonight, we’re less interested in the body than the human person. So we are focusing on Christian anthropology rather than Christian sexual ethics as our starting point.

As St. John Paul taught us, the Creation story in the Book of Genesis tells us the most important thing about us: we were made in God’s own image, male and female he created us. [Gn 1:27] There is something profoundly dignified about the human person that is greater than everything else God made, for we alone are made in his image. And he is not male or female but everything that is masculine or feminine is found in God himself, which is why we can say both “in his image” and “male and female he made them.”

We further discover from the Creation story that we were not made to be solitary. In the next chapter of Genesis we read, “The LORD God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him.” [Gn 2:18] We are made for communion. Your natural desire for connection with a person of the opposite sex in a long-term relationship of trust and mutual support has supernatural origins. That is part of God’s design plan for us.

And we understand that our human relationship was designed by God to be part of and flow from our relationship with our Creator. After we choose to eat the forbidden fruit and break that God-focused relationship, we hide from him as Adam and Eve did:

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. [Gn 3:8]

We are made for communion, for communion with each other and for communion with Him. That is how he designed us.

He also designed us for mission. We have a purpose. We are supposed to love God with all that we have and we are supposed to love our neighbor. Deuteronomy 4:6 is known as the “Shema,” which is the phrase in Hebrew that might be translated today as “Listen up guys.”

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. [Dt 6:4-6]

And the Second Great Commandment we have already heard from the Gospel of Luke: love your neighbor as you love yourself. Our mission is a mission of love. But we don’t always perform our mission, do we? We don’t always love. Why is that?

It’s because of Original Sin. It’s that forbidden fruit. Adam and Eve were conceived without sin, just like Mary. Their choice to turn away from God was entirely free. To prefer the Devil when living in perfect harmony with God changed everything. That is why it is the Original Sin. That is why they had to leave the Garden. And that is why all their children – each one of us – is born in a broken relationship with God and with an inherent inclination to sin, which we call concupiscence. Separated from God, inclined to sin, it is no wonder our human relationships are not what they were meant to be. The first fix is Baptism. Baptism heals the rupture caused by Adam and Eve, and we are given the grace to say “Yes” to our Lord’s instructions, the grace not to hide from him when we are in his presence.

Humans are what is called “a rational animal.” We are animals in that we have instincts to drive our wills, so that we choose things without really deliberating on them but just acting. But we are given rational minds, so our wills can choose something other than our animalistic instinctive response. The basic animal instinct is flight or fight. But with our minds, we can choose to stand – so no flight – and take no action – so no fight. Our rational will has chosen something higher than our base passions of fear or anger. All of this works best if we see things clearly. If our eyes are working clearly, we can distinguish between a stick and a snake. And then our minds can tell our animalistic bodies we don’t have to run from a stick the way we might from a snake. Seeing clearly is important.

Seeing clearly is so important it’s the first lesson of a great book by a great Catholic speaker named Frank Sheed. I’m reading from his well-known book, “Theology and Sanity,” where makes the point that to maintain sanity we need to see things – physical things and intellectual things – as they really are:

[I]f we see anything at all – ourself or some other man, or the universe as a whole or any part of it – without at the same time seeing God holding it there, then we are seeing it all wrong.

If we saw a coat hanging on a wall and did not realize that it was held there by a hook, we should not be living in the real world at all, but in some fantastic world of our own in which coats defied the law of gravity and hung on walls by their own power. Similarly if we see things in existence and do not in the same act see that they are held in existence by God, then equally we are living in a fantastic world, not the real world. Seeing God everywhere and all things upheld by Him is not a matter of sanctity, but of plain sanity, because God IS everywhere and all things are upheld by Him.

The world doesn’t think about God before it goes about its business, which is why the world is headed to destruction. But we claim to be the people of God, and so we should look at everything with the eyes and mind of God. As a Christian, I know I was put here on this Earth for a reason, and you were, too. You are here for me to love as Christ loved. You are not here for me to use as I would use an object like a coat or a car. That means there are many, many acceptable behaviors in the world that are not acceptable for those of us who claim Christ.

For those in the dating world, especially in college. Tinder and the hookup culture is profoundly un-Christian. We are made for relationships by God, not for sexual transactions with strangers. When we are dating, we see with the eyes of the Lord that sexual expression is not for us but only for those bound in Holy Matrimony. All of us are called to chastity. The only proper expression of sexual activity that is consistent with chastity is between a man and a woman in Holy Matrimony. Nobody else is supposed to be doing anything, but all around us everybody else is doing everything! We are truly strangers in a strange land if we are truly Christian.

If you are called to marriage, then you are put on a special mission. At the end of Mass, the deacon dismissed the people, saying: “Go. It is the sending.” The Church expects the laity – which is overwhelmingly families – to do the important work of spreading the Gospel in the secular culture. Here is how Pope Paul VI expressed that mission:

The effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives, is so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others. … The laity fulfill this mission of the Church in the world especially by conforming their lives to their faith so that they become the light of the world as well as by practicing honesty in all their dealings so that they attract all to the love of the true and the good and finally to the Church and to Christ. [APOSTOLICAM ACTUOSITATEM #13]

I don’t think we make a big enough deal about this. When you go out of the Church doors after Mass, you’re supposed to conform your lives to the faith so that you become the light of the world, and you’re supposed to conduct yourselves so that you attract all – everyone – to the love of what’s really true and what’s really good. Pope Paul didn’t tell the priests to change the world with their holiness, he told us to change the world.

We change the world one relationship at a time. Our first relationship has to be our relationship with our Lord. If we get that wrong, everything else will suffer. Our next relationship is with our beloved, our partner in the sanctification of the world. How we love each other is how the world will know Jesus. They’ll know because we will love each other as Jesus loved the Church. Listen to his instructions on marriage to the Ephesians:

Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. [Eph 5:20-28]

Ladies trained by our modern educators often bristle at all this submit talk in this passage. But read it more closely. Submitting is something one does by one’s own choice. It means to put oneself under, under the care of another. It is not the same thing as domination or oppression. And notice what the men are supposed to do: to give up their very lives for their spouses, just as Christ gave up his. Christian love is costly, and we are to give without considering the cost. We are to love recklessly, just as Christ loved recklessly. We are to live the Gospel of Life by dying to self, to controlling our passions by submitting our wills to the will of God. John the Baptist told his disciples about Jesus: “I must decrease that he may increase.” [Jn 3:30] That’s how we are to love.

Love is many things, and some of you may already be familiar with the Four Loves popularized by C. S. Lewis, in which he gives us four different Greek words that all are translated into the one English word, “love.”

Love is the love of affection; the Greek word is “storge.” We should have affection for each other; those warm feelings are important to cultivate and maintain.

Love is the love of the journey of life together as friends; the Greek word is “philos.” We should in our married lives have that strong sense of the two becoming one in a life-long journey, moving together in the marital bond.

Love is the love of yearning for your beloved; the Greek word is “eros.” You probably first noticed each other and just wanted to get to know more about that interesting other person who caught your eye. Absence makes the heart grow fonder because authentic love yearns for the one who should be with me but currently is away.

Love is the love of sacrifice; the Greek word is “agape.” This is the Love of Christ on the Cross. This is the love of the parent changing a soiled diaper for the fourth time tonight at 3am because the baby has bad diarrhea even though he has an important business presentation at 9am.

We are supposed to love with the Love of Good Friday. It is that love that makes that Friday Good Friday instead of terrible Friday. That love gives holy meaning to an otherwise gruesome execution. That love sanctifies the other three loves. It makes yearning (eros) a yearning for the good of the other, and it prevents us from using the other for our own pleasure or entertainment. That love makes the brotherly love (philos) a noble and purposeful friendship that endures the inevitable frictions of marriage. It makes affection (storge) a delight in the goodness of the other while not denying their flaws.

What I have described is pretty simple: if you want good and holy relationships on the way to marriage and throughout your marriage, then love God with all you have and love your partner and he deserves to be loved.

It may be simple, but it is not easy. It involves mastery of our passions. It involves seeing clearly in a world that has blinded itself to reality. It involves getting to know the heart and mind of the other person first. It involves the Beatitudes: seeking humility, being merciful, purity of heart, making peace, and enduring persecution. It involves the virtues: faith, hope, and love – which are pure gifts from God – and prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.

Love is effort. Love is also our glorious mission. How we love each other is how the world will know Love. How we love each other is the Gospel the world reads every day.


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